A Life of Service, Lived With Good-Natured Irreverence

John McCain was not a model midshipman. While at the Naval Academy, he earned so many demerits for unsanctioned outings that by graduation he was made to march the equivalent of 17 round trips between Annapolis and the fleshpots of Baltimore. He later regretted finishing fifth from the bottom of his class instead of dead last. As his mother—still alive at 106—often said, “He was really a scamp.” McCain preferred “maverick.”

A distinct, good-natured irreverence was among John McCain’s abiding features, and for decades I saw it firsthand. He kept friends at his side during both of his presidential campaigns—not only to tell him the unpleasant truth when he made mistakes dealing with the press or answering town-hall questions, but also to share in his biting wit and wry sense of humor.

When turbulence frightened the local politicians aboard a flight across the Midwest, McCain put them at ease with one line delivered cool as ice: “You are safe. I know that I won’t die in a plane crash—I already tried that three times.” He was referring to his naval career, which involved two crashes before he was famously shot down over North Vietnam.

Sometimes McCain’s humor struck closer to the bone. On the morning of the 2008 New Hampshire primary, he addressed the press outside a hotel owned by his friend Steve Duprey. Asked for his thoughts on the primary, with Mr. Duprey at his side, McCain answered: “I am so glad to be leaving this terrible hotel, with threadbare towels, thin soap and cheap furniture.”

The forthrightness of McCain’s private persona was of a piece with boldness he displayed as a sailor. In 1967 McCain was caught in a fire on the USS Forrestal off the coast of Vietnam. Suddenly surrounded by explosions while strapped into his bomb-laden jet, he climbed over the windscreen, swung to the deck, and, instead of running for cover, rushed to help a sailor manning a thrashing fire hose until the blaze was contained hours later.

After he was shot down and captured later that year, McCain’s behavior was even more heroic. His North Vietnamese captors intensified his torture upon learning of his famous father, the Pacific commander. When the press asked Adm. John McCain what he planned to do about his son, he replied, “Pray for him” and never commented again.

In July 1968 when the North Vietnamese offered to release him, the young McCain famously refused to go until all prisoners of war who had been there longer had been released. After enduring five more years of beatings and torture, McCain returned home with his brother POWs. Soon after that I met him—still on crutches—and we remained friends thereafter.

In addition to rankling his critics in Congress, McCain’s indomitable attitude occasionally earned him enemies overseas. In 2001 when George W. Bush said he had looked in Vladimir Putin’s eyes and seen his soul, McCain retorted that he had also looked into Mr. Putin’s eyes but had seen just three letters: “K-G-B.” The Russians soon thereafter started targeting him with online lies. To this day, emails circulate purporting to come from unnamed “fellow POWs,” “squadron mates” and “authoritative sources,” accusing McCain of being a coward, a squeal, a lousy pilot and worse.

Even Americans who knew him only as a politician couldn’t doubt his boldness. As chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he led the passage of the most important reforms to the Pentagon in seven decades in the National Defense Authorization Act for 2017. More broadly, McCain rekindled Americans’ understanding of international threats and the urgent need for strategy. He did all of this with a bipartisan openness that earned his colleagues’ respect.

Shortly before McCain was diagnosed with cancer last year, a few friends traveled with him to Monaco to meet Prince Albert and Princess Caroline. After a lovely dinner in the garden, McCain was shown the palace pub, where he discovered a plaque commemorating his first cruise to the Mediterranean aboard the USS Independence in 1962, given to Princess Grace by the ship’s captain. It was on that port call that McCain learned to play craps in the casino. After a gracious and very late farewell to the royals, McCain joyfully led us to the same craps table at which he had first played and, amid a large selfie-clicking crowd of Europeans, he won €900 before the sun came up.

Soon after, when McCain was diagnosed with brain cancer and began the long ordeal of his treatment, his character was undiminished. He always bore a laconic smile and frequently offered wisecracks, invariably comforted his many visitors, and occasionally hurled verbal thunderbolts at his former adversaries. To his pals he would say: “Cheer up, none of us gets out of this alive, and I have had more than my share of years and blessings.” He showed not a tinge of apprehension about his next great adventure.